Animal Instincts

The Pet Shop Boys maintain their pop pedigree with a new album and tour.

Andy Warhol once wrote, "A person is entitled to the lighting they need." It's a philosophy the Pet Shop Boys seem to have taken to heart throughout the two-decade span of their careers as dance-music innovators. The Boys peaked during the synth-pop happy Eighties, thus ensuring that their songs would become requisite inclusions on every Eighties music compilation ever made and find eternal life on the dance floors of nostalgia-happy American discos. Yet while the Bananaramas and the Bangles of the world have long since walked off into the sunset wearing fishnet stockings and neon-pink jellies, the Pet Shop Boys have evolved, today creating glamorous, unquestionably modern dance music. That the Boys have managed to stay relevant is perhaps due to their uncanny knack for divining the necessary light for each moment: They are serious arbiters of their established oeuvre, but count on them to don a fabulous array of outfits along the way.

"Oh, yes. There will be elaborate costumes," says vocalist Neil Tennant of the band's current North American tour. "But we will only change them two or three times during the show. I'm obsessed with not being real. The costumes are a part of becoming larger than life. You don't just have to look like you -- one hasn't got to look like oneself all the time. It makes me feel stronger as a performer when I wear costumes."

The tour comes on the cusp of the release of Nightlife, the Boys' eighth full-length and the first PSB release since 1996's Bilingual. It's a lush, gossamer blend of strings, synths and Tennant's dreamy vocals, with a tone that varies from danceable melancholia to outright exuberance. If Nightlife doesn't make you get up and move, it's probably because you are physically unable to. The album continues on a musical trajectory that began in 1981, when Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe met at an electronics shop in London. The two discovered a mutual passion for dance music and synthesizers and at once decided to form a band. In 1983, Tennant met producer Bobby "O" Orlando while on a writing assignment for the British music magazine Smash Hits. (Tennant began his career as a music journalist, a profession he admits he was never comfortable with: "I am always afraid that I will run out of things to say," he confesses.) Orlando produced the Pet Shop Boys' first single, "West End Girls," in 1984, but the song did not catch on until it was re-recorded with Stephen Hague in 1986. "Girls" became a radio and dance hit in both America and Europe, and the Pet Shop Boys became darlings of the pop world. They reissued the ironic anthem "Opportunities," in which Tennant echoes a common sentiment of the Greed decade: "I've got the brains/You've got the looks/Let's make lots of money."

Pop artists for the ethical treatment of animals: the Pet Shop Boys.
Pop artists for the ethical treatment of animals: the Pet Shop Boys.

The Boys became bona fide disco luminaries with the 1987 release of their second album, Actually, which featured such top ten hits as "It's a Sin," a curious cover of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" a duet between Tennant and his favorite singer, Dusty Springfield. But as mainstream tastes began to change toward the end of the Eighties, with radio and MTV began moving away from pure pop in favor of early alternative, rap and more aggressive sounds at the dawn of grunge and post-punk, the Pet Shop Boys found their audience more limited to the dance and electronic faithful -- an audience that remained solid in Europe but diminished in the States.

Today the Boys struggle somewhat to connect with American audiences' newly found enthusiasm for dance music, something Tennant regards with ironic ambivalence. While Nightlife clearly features what many would term electronica, he hesitates to do so. "In England we don't speak of electronica, because that suggests that it's a new form of music. It's been around since Kraftwerk released Autobahn in 1974. But when Madonna released 'Ray of Light' in 1998, some people in America thought that suddenly there was a new form of music." The Pet Shop Boys considered themselves pop musicians long before that term evoked young Miss Spears or an infinite number of artists whose American musical life is limited to one or two forgettable hits. He's understandably disappointed by the current pop landscape, believing it bereft of musical intelligence. "I don't believe in intellectualized pop so much as pop that has integrity, that is the result of the creative process and is designed to express something. That doesn't seem to exist in pop music these days. Now it's an industrialized process. These bands like the Backstreet Boys only have a certain shelf life, and their managers are concerned with their marketability. I think the Backstreet Boys are more talented than, for example, the New Kids on the Block. They're much better singers, but nevertheless, what they do doesn't mean anything.

"Pop music used to be about something," he adds, "back when the Human League and the Culture Club were popular. I see the audience for dance music these days as being the same sort of audience that the Human League had fifteen years previously. The fans of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim are the sort of people who were fans of pop music in the Eighties."

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